I was fourteen and waking up on a midsummer morning. I could hear the rain pelting the house, the driveway, the sidewalk, the road. I was happy, or at least relieved. No baseball.
If I had been planning on playing the game itself, I would have been unhappy, but I was supposed to umpire that morning. That splendid sogginess meant I would not have to. And not calling balls and strikes that day was a relief.
My town did not have Little League, youth baseball connected with the national and later international organization, but it had its own version run by the Recreation Department. It had divisions by age—nine and ten, eleven and twelve, up to eighteen. I was scheduled to umpire a game between teams of the youngest at nine that morning.
I got the job by passing a test but not one that measured your ability to call a baseball game with any accuracy. Instead, it was like a school exam, except this one was on the rules of baseball. I got a booklet of the baseball rules at Joe Hauser’s, the local sporting goods store, and read it a few times. I was good at tests and was confident, especially because I had been tipped off to the trick question that appeared every year. It asked what the proper call was if a line drive hit the pitching rubber and bounced back into foul territory between third and home without touching anyone. Of course, the correct answer is “Foul ball!” Not everyone who took the exam on a spring evening–all boys (I don’t know what would have happened if a girl had come to be an umpire) going into high school next fall–was a diligent student, but I was, and I easily got one of the open umpire slots.
That summer I was assigned games of the kids nine and ten and eleven and twelve. In every job I have had, I have learned things. With that first job, I may have learned something about discipline and responsibility and so on, but in this job I quickly learned that I hated umpiring nine- and ten- year-olds. This was in the old days. This was not T-ball or a game in which an adult tossed underhanded to a batter. No. There was a pitcher and a batter, and the pitcher invariably could not pitch and the batter invariably could not hit. And if a ball got into play, the fielders could neither catch nor throw. These young ones could not play the game, and this was also the time before the mercy rule where a game ends if one team gets far ahead. The games seemed interminable. Every time I umpired one of these games, I felt like the hourglass sand was spilling onto the dirt never to be replaced. And so on that morning, I blessed the rain because I would not have to umpire an under-ten game. (My feelings about these games are captured by the fact that I did not get paid when a game was rained out. The loss of money was worth it.)
That summer I also umpired games of eleven- and twelve-year-olds. There was a vast difference in the two age groups. The ten-and-unders not only could not play baseball, they were also unformed in the personality department. The eleven- and twelve-year-olds were on their way to being human beings. Many were quick-witted or wiseasses, filled with jokes to throw at me, curious about the world (mostly that meant trying to find out what high school was like and whether it was true you might get attracted to girls). And now many could play a good game of baseball. This, however, sometimes presented a problem. The spectrum of physical development of twelve-year-old boys is broad. Some of them are close to bodily adulthood. These big guys often were the pitchers. These kids still played on a softball diamond, and the ball hurled from forty-six feet got to the plate with remarkable rapidity. This was not just the batter’s problem. I umpired standing behind home plate. Often the pitcher’s skill far outshone the catcher’s, and I could not be sure that the pitches would not make it to me. If I knew it was going to be one of those days, I got to the park extra early to get on the blowup chest protectors which best absorbed the thump of a thrown ball, but I still could leave with a bruise or two.
That summer also reinforced what I already knew about playing baseball: A good batter has to overcome fear. It is frightening to have a hard object—a baseball—thrown as fast as possible in your vicinity, an object that could, and sometimes did, hit you. A natural instinct was to pull away when that object was thrown, but that natural instinct had to be overcome to hit the ball.
Some boys came up to the plate seemingly oblivious of the danger, but with others I could feel, I could smell, the fear as they entered the batter’s box, but their reactions varied. Some did not even attempt to overcome the emotion. They bailed out even before the ball was thrown. It was clear they did not want to be there and projected that this was just a stupid game. Some struggled to contain the fear. They tried to jerk their body back into a hitting position after it had instinctively pulled away, but their conscious mind could not win out over their unconscious instinct. And they seemed miserable. They wanted, sometimes desperately, to be able to do it, but they could not, and every pitch made them a failure again. And then there were those who stood alongside the plate fearful, but never flinched and took their hacks like a baseball player. And I wondered if any of these reactions mattered except for those few moments three or four times a game on a few mornings during a ten-week summer. I wonder now if these different reactions would tell me anything about the subsequent adults these guys became.